Farms and food at risk on several fronts

13 June 2016

I remember visiting a dairy farm in the Kellyville area more than twenty years ago.  In those days, although theoretically a suburb of outer Sydney with lines marking it on maps and in street directories, Kellyville had more farmland than houses, situated on the fringe of Sydney’s north-west.  But now you’d be forgiven for wondering if there’d ever been farms in Kellyville, with houses built wherever you look.

Naturally, Sydney has grown over time, and farmland in places like Kellyville has disappeared to make way for new houses.  And as people continually choose, or feel compelled, to move to Sydney, more farmland on the city’s suburban fringes will disappear.

Desirable and inevitable though population growth in Sydney might be, it’s creating something of a side-effect, often ignored by governments and planners.  The side-effect is the loss of farmland, and this poses a danger to food security.

As populations grow, not just in Australia but all over the world, this creates a paradox whereby less land is available for producing food and yet more people are needing good food to eat.

Notwithstanding the growth of technology and innovation, and the ability of people to surprise us all in discovering better ways of doing things, farmland is too precious to simply let go of, even to make way for houses and places for people to live.  How many people realise that much of the land on Sydney’s outer suburban fringes produces a great deal of edible food, often too easily taken for granted?

My point is that, while Sydney will grow and must grow, we have to be careful with managing growth on the fringes, where countless hectares of land produce much fresh food – these areas of land are sometimes called “food bowls”.  If we just let suburban growth or “urban sprawl” proceed without much thought, we risk losing these food bowls, meaning that we must get food from areas more distant, and the cost of transporting this food over longer distances makes it cost more.  Right now, I doubt that governments and planners are doing enough to identify food bowls on or near the fringes of Sydney, or other big cities for that matter, and preserve them wherever possible and practicable, before releasing more land for new homes.  I believe that we need to identify and preserve such food bowls while planning for outer suburban growth.

And this problem isn’t confined to Sydney.  Having been many times to watch the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island in Victoria, I’ve gone out of and back into Melbourne every time, and I’ve lost count of how much farmland on Melbourne’s fringes has disappeared as new suburbs have sprung up.

To me, urban sprawl appeared overlooked when people describe farms, and therefore food, as being at risk on several fronts, in Sydney and other major cities.  I consider it as much a threat to farmland as mining and coal-seam gas.  But urban sprawl hasn’t generated the kind of public concern and anger triggered by mining and gas, especially on quality farmland in regional areas.

I’ve lost count of the number of stories that I’ve heard about quality farmland, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland, being damaged or lost as a result of mining or gas.  When it comes to gas wells, the process of drilling through the ground and fracturing it by means of high pressure to release underground gas – commonly known as fracking – has been highly controversial.  If a mistake is somehow made during the fracking process, the released gas can contaminate or damage the ground above it, making it no longer good for producing food.  While the hazard of land contamination from gas has bothered suburban communities, most concerns have come out of rural areas, where lots of farms are.  And I haven’t heard many stories of former mines being landscaped and rehabilitated and somehow transformed into good farmland.

Although I’m not against mining generally, I’m not comfortable with gas and fracking, and I think that our best farmland needs protection from those things, because one mistake during operations at a mine or a gas well might mean that the land will never be suitable for farming again.  In a world of growing populations and shrinking farmland, we can’t afford to let our best farmland go, even though demand is growing for mineral resources and gas as well as food.

The only thing that I’d “let go” of farmland for is better transport.  Because I’d like to see more people living in regional areas, particularly inland, I believe that many regional highways and some railways need to be duplicated to make access to regional centres seem smoother, and in some cases upgrading these transport links would lead to the loss of some farmland.  Indeed the regional centres of Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo, Tamworth, and Armidale have been promoted as Evocities.  But with all lying on undivided highways, some farmland will have to be sacrificed so that they can be upgraded.

Currently our farms and food are at risk from several fronts, whether mining or gas or urban sprawl.  I support growth, but it needs to happen sensibly and carefully.  Governments must do more to fit food bowls in with growth.



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